Cave's Prohibition story resonates in modern times
"The only person who can say they're happy getting old," Nick Cave tells the Cannes Film Festival, "is someone who isn't actually old yet. Every day, I get less and less happy about that idea".
So how does ageing affect his writing? "My memory's gone and I have to use the thesaurus a lot, dictionaries a lot, enlarge the type, all that sort of shit," he says. "It's awful. I don't recommend it to anyone."
Cave, whose 54 years seem to fit him at least as well as youth ever did, is in Cannes to promote Lawless, which was directed by his friend John Hillcoat and for which he wrote script and music.
All present and correct … from left, actors Guy Pearce, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, screenwriter Nick Cave, director John Hillcoat, actors Jessica Chastain and Shia LaBeouf arrive for the screening of Lawless at the 65th international film festival in Cannes. Photo: AP
Lawless is based on the true story of three brothers - played by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and the Australian actor Jason Clarke - who ran a moonshine still in the Virginian backwoods during Prohibition. When Chicago gangsters and corrupt police try to move in on them, the Bondurants refuse to give up their turf. It's a classic story of the triumph of the little guy, based on a memoir by Matt Bondurant, one of the real-life brothers' grandsons.
Hillcoat and Cave collaborated most recently on The Proposition, although their partnership goes back at least to 1988 when Hillcoat made his futurist fantasy of private jails, Ghosts of the Civil Dead, at home in Australia. Lawless is an American film, but has a fair leavening of Australians - Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor - in major roles.
"I have always thought of films as stories for the world," Hillcoat says. "It's just about whoever's right for the part, not national borders. All I can say is there is a lot of great talent that comes out of Australia and I like working with great actors."
Yes we Cannes
General view of the venue at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France Photo: Jonathan Short/AP
Even before it screened in Cannes on Saturday, Lawless was already notorious for its frequent bouts of brutish violence. In fact, gore is more suggested than exploited. "Most screen violence is tedious," says Cave. "But there is something about the way John Hillcoat deals with it that I found exciting right from the very early movies that no one even knows about. It's very brutal, very quick, all over very fast but it leaves a huge mess behind." The frequent fights are shocking, agrees LaBeouf, because they seem real.
Much of the film's viciousness emanates from Pearce's corrupt deputy, a dandyish psychopath with a fastidious distaste for the mountain men he has been sent to tame. Pearce came up with his own elaborately parted and pasted haircut. "We just wanted to create something extremely creepy," says Hillcoat, recalling his first sighting of a picture of Pearce in character. "It was sent to Nick and he showed the picture to his two gorgeous boys. They couldn't eat for - what was it? - two days"
Cave wrote the script and the music simultaneously. The music is a muddle of Appalachian folk fiddle with rock and electronica, including a slow bluegrass version of the Velvet Underground's White Light/ White Heat. "We didn't want to make a worthy Americana-style soundtrack," says Cave. "It's been done and done very well in say, [the Coen Brothers'] O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that kind of thing. So we wanted to stay as far from that as possible."
Guy Pearce as a corrupt deputy with psychopathic tendencies, in a scene from the film.
They also wanted it to sound current rather than nostalgic. "This film is actually a modern film in its way, because prohibition still exists today and still fails especially in their so-called 'war on drugs'. So there was a kind of gleeful idea of fusing modern concerns, such as taking a song about taking speed and amphetamine and doing it in a bluegrass style that seemed to pull the present back to the past in some kind of pleasing way."
Hillcoat thinks there are clear parallels between economic insecurity of the current decade and the '30s that make Prohibition stories seem immediate. "That was the birth of serious organised crime. It's been going ever since."
Reactions to Lawless at the Cannes press screening spanned from high enthusiasm to dismissal. One Italian journalist described it as a conventional adventure that didn't belong in an artistic festival like Cannes. A sprinkling of hissing at the end of the screening marked the disapproval of the naysayers. Arguably, if a film can raise so much argument, the Cannes Film Festival is exactly where it belongs.